The BMW 3-Series has set the standard for modern sports sedans for almost half a century.
Although the 3-Series is generally reliable, it has a reputation for being expensive to maintain and some models suffer from major issues.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the common issues BMW 3-Series owners have had to deal with and different ways to fix them.
Table of Contents
1. Cooling System Problems
One of the most common things that can fail in a BMW 3-Series is the cooling system components.
Much of the BMW 3-Series’ cooling system is made out of plastic which eventually becomes brittle over time.
Some of the critical components you’ll want to keep an eye on include:
- Hoses and pipes
- Expansion tank
- Parts of the radiator
Cooling system issues are prevalent in all generations of the 3-Series going back to the 1990s up to the present day. When the cooling system fails, the car can overheat and cause major engine damage.
Here’s what one 3-Series owner on the E46 subreddit had to say:
“As an e46 owner I can say that the engine itself is extremely reliable, however the cooling system is not. Common parts to be replaced: expansion tank, water pump/pulley, thermostat and some of the plastic tubes. I have never had any problems with any other part of the car, just the cooling system. (380k miles 318i)”
If you’re driving an older 3-Series, keep an eye out for coolant leaks or overheating issues and try to address them as soon as possible.
A complete cooling system overhaul is not unusual for older cars at around the 10-year mark. Although most people will replace parts one at a time and only when they break.
2. Water Pump Issues
The fifth generation 3-Series, also known as the E90 model, was the first to use an electric water pump which had a tendency to suddenly fail before the car reached 100,000 miles.
The water pump is a critical component of the cooling system and keeps the coolant flowing throughout the engine. When this stops working, your car will overheat and go into limp mode.
Compared to older belt driven water pumps, a failing electric water pump doesn’t have many symptoms that will tell you that it’s about to fail.
Some signs that might tell you that the electric water pump is problematic include:
- Cooling fan constantly runs at high speed
- Engine temperature warning on the dash
- Trouble code for 2e83 or “electrical cooling pump, low power mode”
Here’s how one owner on the E90Post.com forums described their experience:
“My water pump just went out. Car overheated and went into limp mode. Then it worked fine for the night (guess it kicked back in for a while) and the next day shut off after just a mile of driving.”
“My mechanic was able to isolate and test the pump with his computer and show me that for now it’s intermittent and works for only a minute before it dies, but it’s failing fast.”
If you see a temperature warning on the dash, it’s best to pull over and let the engine cool down for around 30 minutes before driving off again. This will help prevent catastrophic engine damage.
Once you start experiencing symptoms of a failing water pump, you’ll want to swap it out for a new OEM unit before it stops working altogether.
When replacing the water pump, most people also install a new thermostat which is another common point of failure.
Older generations of the BMW 3-Series also used plastic impellers in their water pumps which are prone to fail. Most people upgrade their water pumps with aftermarket units that have metal blades that last significantly longer.
3. Oil Leaks
BMWs are notorious for developing oil leaks over time and the 3-Series is no different.
Much like the plastic cooling system problems, the engine’s rubber seals can wear out and degrade over time and cause oil to slowly leak out.
If there’s not enough oil in the engine, the metal engine internals will wear out faster which will eventually cause catastrophic engine damage if it’s not addressed immediately.
Common places to check for oil leaks include:
- Valve cover gasket
- Oil filter housing
- Oil pan
If you’re worried about potential oil leaks, especially in an older vehicle, you should regularly check the car’s oil levels.
Older cars up until the E46 model still have a dipstick in the engine bay. Newer BMW 3-Series models have a digital gauge that can be accessed through the vehicle settings.
You shouldn’t wait for the oil level warning to come on because it might be too late by then.
If the oil level is well below the maximum, you should top it off little by little. A little bit of oil consumption every 1,000 miles or so is normal.
If the oil levels are going down quickly after driving short distances, check the engine bay for oil leaks and replace any gaskets or seals that are worn out.
4. Carbon Buildup
Modern BMW engines starting with the E90 model and onwards use direct injection which eventually leads to carbon buildup.
Carbon buildup is a common issue in pretty much every direct injection engine so it’s not exclusive to the BMW 3-Series.
However, the N54 engine used in the BMW 335i from 2006 to 2010 is more prone to excessive carbon buildup than other BMW engines. This was BMW’s first mass-produced turbo engine and was plagued with many issues.
Carbon buildup is caused by unburnt fuel and oil accumulating on different parts of the engine such as the valves, spark plugs and intake manifold.
Excessive carbon buildup can lead to:
- Poor fuel economy
- Rough idling
- Stuck valves
Here’s how one owner on E90Post.com described their experience:
“My problem started with a slight hesitation when I would gas it at 80 mph in 6th gear. I could feel it stumble and then catch up, no SES light. I could run thru 1 and 2 with no problems all the way to redline, in third gear on a long pull, it would stumble multiple times between 2-4k rpm but no light.”
“I got my car back after the carbon cleaning(walnut blast) and the problem is fixed.”
It’s not unusual for cars to have excessive carbon buildup at around 50,000 miles especially if it’s only driven for short distances where the engine doesn’t quite reach operating temperatures.
In most cases, problems caused by carbon buildup can be fixed by cleaning out the carbon through walnut blasting which costs a few hundred dollars.
5. Fuel Pump Failure
Early fuel pump failures are fairly common in many modern BMWs.
In cars equipped with the N54 and N55 engines, it’s usually the high pressure fuel pump located in the engine bay that goes out first. Cars equipped with the N20 and N26 four cylinder engines usually have issues with the low pressure fuel pump located inside the gas tank.
Signs of a faulty fuel pump include:
- Hard starting
- Engine shuts off after a few minutes of idling
- Reduced power
- ‘Service Engine Soon’ warning on the dash
Here’s how owners on Bimmerpost.com described their issue:
“My 2013 328ix F30 is having engine issues. I would start it but the RPM would drop and it turns off. After 4 attempts it finally stayed on but it struggles, No error codes appear such as drivetrain failure.”
“I had a fuel pump failure on my F32 428i at around 25k just after the warranty ran out.”
BMW actually extended the warranty for fuel pumps on most affected vehicles due to the number of failures they received. But the warranty usually only covered one of the pumps and not both.
If you suspect that your fuel pump is failing, it’s best to check for trouble codes to make sure. A new fuel pump can cost a few hundred dollars and shouldn’t be too difficult to install.
6. Timing Chain Problems
The sixth generation BMW 3-Series, also known as the F30 model, have had lots of issues with timing chain and oil pump drive chain failures.
This issue typically affects cars equipped with the N20 or N26 engine that were built from 2012 to 2015.
The main problem is that the timing chain guides can break apart and cause several issues such as:
- Introduce play in the timing chain
- Cause the timing chain to skip teeth
- Broken bits can fall into the oil pan
All of these can lead to catastrophic engine damage and require you to replace or rebuild the engine completely.
Here’s how one owner described their experience:
2013 BMW 328I xDrive. A drivetrain warning light came on at approx 11300 miles. After dealer inspection the timing chain guides may have caused/or the chain may be loose and is now dropping metal into the engine oil.
Common symptoms of an timing chain failure include:
- Loud whining noise when revving the engine
- Low oil pressure warning
- Loud rattling
Replacing the timing chain, chain guides and oil pump sprocket with the updated BMW parts should prevent future problems from occurring.
BMW also extended the warranty for the timing chain components to 7 years/70,000 miles. But most cars are already way past the warranty period, so you’ll most likely have to deal with it yourself.
7. Serpentine Belt Issues
Many fifth generation E90 3-Series can suffer from premature serpentine belt failures. Once the belt snaps, it can get sucked into the engine and cause catastrophic damage.
This affects cars equipped with the N52, N53, N54 and N55 engines. The N55 engine was also used in the sixth generation BMW 335i up until 2015 so it’s also susceptible to this problem.
Here’s how one owner described their experience:
“So I was driving at about 30 mph and heard noise coming from the engine bay, I immediately turned off the car and saw the serpentine belt was off all the idlers and shredded to pieces but there’s some still wrapped around the crankshaft. I had it towed home rather than risking it being sucked into the engine but can’t get the belt off the crankshaft.“
Although the serpentine belt is rated to last 120,000 miles or up to 6 years, oil can leak onto the belt and cause it to wear out faster. The belt’s tensioners can go out of alignment and cause the belt to slowly slide off the pulley.
Other common causes for premature serpentine belt failure include:
- Loose power steering pulley
- Loose power steering bolts
- Defective motor mounts
To avoid damaging your engine, you should periodically check the condition of the belt and the pulleys that it wraps around. Most owners change the belt at around 50,000 to 80,000 miles to avoid future headaches.
8. VANOS Issues
BMW’s VANOS variable valve timing system has been used since 1992 and is a fairly common maintenance item in pretty much every generation of the 3-Series since then.
When the VANOS fails you’ll experience the following symptoms:
- Reduced power and torque at lower RPMs
- Rough idling
- Poor gas mileage
- Hard starting
- Limp mode problems
VANOS issues usually start appearing at around 70,000 to 100,000 miles and are more likely to happen in older cars where the system was first used.
In older cars, like the E36 and E46 models from the early 1990s up to the mid 2000s, you’ll have to either replace the entire VANOS unit or rebuild the actuators.
These repairs are quite complicated and require special tools, so you’ll likely spend a lot of time and money to get this sorted out.
In newer generations of the 3-Series, fixing the VANOS system usually just requires replacing the solenoids which can cost around $500 for parts and labor.
Some people get away with cleaning the solenoids, but this usually only buys you more time until they fail completely.
9. Rear Subframe Problems
Older E36 and E46 models of the BMW 3-Series have widespread rear subframe problems which can end up destroying the rear section of the floor.
This issue is more common in the E46 models, especially in cars that have high powered engines such as the M3 models. But rear subframe problems are still pretty common across the range.
Over time, the mounting points that connect the rear subframe to the chassis crack and break apart. When this happens, the rear subframe won’t be properly connected to the car and can just tear apart the rear end and the trunk floor.
Once the mounting points start to go, you’ll usually hear loud popping noises from the back as you drive. This can happen even before the car reaches 100,000 miles.
Here’s how one owner on the E46Fanatics.com forum described their experience:
“I was driving and I heard a strange noise coming from the rear when braking, (dis)engaging the clutch, and accelerating.”
“Yesterday, on my way to a theme park, the noise was back, and worse than ever! It sounded like there was a cable tied from the wheel to the rear bumper and that the bumper was being cracked and ripped to pieces.”
“I took it to a body shop and they lifted it to find what I had feared the most. Subframe, left rear driver’s side, ripped from the trunk floor.“
To avoid these rear subframe issues, you’ll want to get reinforcement plates installed. If the rear end is already damaged, you’ll have to replace the rear floor.
10. Headlight Issues
Many BMW E46s came with HID Xenon headlights as standard. These offered a brighter and whiter light compared to older halogen style bulbs.
However, since these HID bulbs ran at higher temperatures, it would often cause the headlight projector assembly to melt over time. This often made the headlights look dimmer even after you replace the bulbs.
This would also affect the wiring and the headlight adjusters that allowed you to adjust the angle of the headlights.
Here’s how one owner described their experience:
“This car has factory hid xenon projector headlights. Over time the reflector bowls burned and melted from the heat of the light bulbs, causing some wire insulation to melt, and a brown film to cover all surfaces inside the headlight assembly.”
It’s often difficult to replace just the projector bowls, so your best option is to replace the entire headlight assembly, but this might set you back a few hundred dollars for the original parts.
BMW 3-Series Pros & Cons
- Great handling
- Cutting edge tech
- Lots of luxury features
- Powerful engine options
- Comfortable ride
- Good build quality and refinement
- Out of warranty maintenance can be expensive
- Base models lack many standard features
- Poor resale value
What Do The Reviews Say?
“We tested an all-wheel-drive 330i. Its turbocharged four-cylinder is strong and responsive; you don’t need to rev it much before it delivers the goods. Our test car reached 60 mph in 5.6 seconds in our testing, which is a quick time for a small luxury sedan with a base engine. The transmission shifts quickly and complements the surprisingly flexible power of the engine.”
“We also like the car’s agility when going around turns. With the M Sport package, the 330i’s body motions are well controlled. Experienced drivers might find themselves wanting a little more playfulness, but nonetheless this luxury sedan is easy to drive quickly.”
“Our test 330i suffered from a surprisingly harsh ride. We suspect our test car’s optional sport suspension (as part of the M Sport package) and possibly the rough-riding tires were the cause. If you’re worried about comfort, we’d suggest getting a 330i without the M Sport package.”
“We do like the 330i’s exceptionally quiet cabin at highway speeds. Plus, the front seats are supportive and have plenty of available adjustments. The 3 Series’ climate system is capable but operating it can be puzzling at times.”
“The 3 Series isn’t the priciest offering in the segment, but it’s also far from the best value. You get a quality product for your dollar with solid performance to match and complimentary maintenance as a bonus.”
What’s the Resale Value of a BMW 3 Series?
Here’s a quick look at used car pricing on Edmunds at the time of writing.